The Subversion of War Part 4: The War on Terror and the Modern Times
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The political theorist Francis Fukuyama famously declared the end of the Cold War the "end of history" and a victory of a capitalist, liberal western ideology. He believed that 21st-century humankind would look into a bright future - an utterly globalized world aiming for collective peace, freedom, and prosperity. Sadly, history has not developed as Fukuyama has wished or expected.
The sudden tragedy on September 11, 2001, goes down as the most significant terrorist attack in the world's history, bringing nearly 3000 civilians to death and profoundly shifting the political theorist's calculation. The subsequent U.S. "war on terrorism" introduced the world to a new age of warfare, shaped by terrorism, ethnic conflicts, civil wars, and special operations rather than open warfare between armies of nation-states.
Furthermore, it had a deep-felt impact on American politics, such as the much-criticized immigration policy and on popular culture and society, trying to cope with the unexpected shock and the consequence of persistent fear.
Scroll down below to read Part 4 of One Block Down’s latest editorial series, “The Subversion of War”, documenting the rise of terrorism fear in Western Countries and the mainstream success of military clothing and camo.
Before going in-depth with the cultural response of a discouraged America, we'd like to provide a quick dive into the topic of what is often termed as "extremist terrorism." As the occurrence on September 11, 2001, led to a racist and hideous picturing of Muslim people in the United States, one has to define what the term actually means. Terrorism describes the irregular use of violence by non-state groups against civilian targets to achieve political interests. Therefore, it's immoral in its definition, trying to destabilize countries by the spread of fear. It aims to create terror, a feeling of insecurity, and the idea that leaders can no longer protect those they lead. It leaves people stunned and has an emotional impact that lives on through its political implications.
What necessarily needs to be considered in the case of 9/11 is the fact that it was an extremist terroristic action. Extremists hold political preferences that lie in one of the tails of parliamentary opinion. In other words, their political beliefs are not widely shared even within their own societies. Therefore extremists, in general, lack the means or power to obtain their goals peacefully through negotiation. In conclusion, and quite evident, Muslim and Arabic people have never been potential supporters of violent organizations just because of their birthplace or religion.
The immediate aftermath of 9/11 initialized an era in American media, mainly defined by the emotional proclamation of patriotism through all channels devisable and a temporary aversion to violent and destructive imagery.
The times of the triumphantly joyful presentation of brutality and disturbance in American movies like "Independence Day," "Armageddon," or "Rambo" have suddenly disappeared overnight, shifting to a leaning toward fantasy- and family-friendly films. Hollywood apparently believed that the traumatized American society could not handle scenes that could remind them of the fatal occurrence.
Therefore, existing movies and shows were reworked or even taken off air to avoid associations with the incident. For example, the original teaser for Spiderman (2002) was removed immediately after the attack, as it featured a helicopter trapped in a spiderweb that spanned the Twin Towers. That illustrates that even the existence of the World Trade Center had to be deleted from American eyesight. Even episodes of kids' shows like Pokémon, Power Rangers, and Invader Zim were not televised because of the showcasing of destroyed buildings and cityscapes.
But not only shows and movies experienced this agenda of avoidance. Also, the selection of songs on American radio shifted as Clear Channels Communications, since rebranded as iHeartMedia, developed a list of 164 songs sent to all its radio stations, urging them to bypass certain tracks.
Songs like Elton John's "Benny and the Jets "or Frank Sinatra's "New York, New York" were not played simply because of mentioning airplanes.
Besides the media's avoidance strategy, one could observe unlimited patriotism in national media, trying to uplift the society in shock. The most famous song celebrating the national pride of the U.S.A. was arguably Toby Keith's "Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue (The Angry American)," being placed at the top of the charts for over 20 weeks. By reading the lyrics, it is pretty apparent that this song was a dangerous call to war, announcing and celebrating America's upcoming vendetta against terrorism and the Middle East. Somehow, it was hard to find open criticism about this unhealthy patriotic anthem, which can be traced back to a right-wing cancel-cultural spirit.
Every type of criticism targeted at the "America-loving" media or the government was postmarked as anti-American at that time. "It became unpatriotic to suggest that there was anything wrong with the United States," Professor Lynn Spigl told MotherJones in an interview. On March 10, 2003, Dixie Chicks lead singer Natalie Maines spoke to the crowd, directly addressing and criticizing the imminent U.S. invasion of Iraq, leading the former best-selling-all-female band to a critical backlash. The antiwar statement, heading to a derail of the Dixie Chicks' success, amplifies how deeply America was affected by rage and anxiety. While opinion worldwide was overwhelmingly against the Iraq War, most Americans weren't just pro-war — they could not even think about the idea of not supporting their country and President.
For instance, this state of mind led to the emergence of the hilarious name "freedom fries," a diss aimed at France due to the country's criticism of U.S. foreign policy.
Seeing that, it is indisputable that America had issues with handling the collective trauma, as there have not been many voices, intellectually challenging and answering the "why." Instead, the American government established an "arts and entertainment task force" in cooperation with HBO's Chris Albrecht and C.B.S. head Les Moonves to support and justify the war on terror. The specific output of these meetings is unclear, but some of it is traceable. What could be observed was the continuous use of Al-Qaeda plotlines, intensifying the image of the American villain.
The most prominent show of that ongoing feedback loop between Hollywood and the government was "24." The thriller show, mirroring real-life events, seemingly focused on using torture as an instrument to protect American freedom. Thereby, "24" can be perceived as a sort of propaganda legitimizing President Bush's proclamation of war. The emergence of the Marvel Cinematic Universe ("MCU"), initialized by the movie "Iron Man" is another example of an apparent political agenda. Protagonist Tony Stark was initially conceived as a fighter against the "Communist Menace." After 9/11, however, the character's origin storyline has been rewritten, connecting it to the Gulf War instead.
When Iron Man finally launched in 2008, the protagonist received another origin story makeover. This time, Tony Stark was captured and tortured by Afghan terrorists, making it obvious who the true villain of the United States was.
But fortunately, there have not only been mindless patriotic anthems and government-encouraged Hollywood projects. Some artists were brave enough to speak out their unpopular perspective on the occurring frustration in America - a move quite risky, having the Dixie Chicks in mind. The politically conscious U.S. Hip-Hop duo "dead prez," consisting of the rappers "M-1" and "stic.man" put a highly reflected take on the 9/11 attack. The hook of their song "Know Your Enemy" proclaims President Bush to be an even worse threat than Bin Laden is and the C.I.A. and F.B.I. as the real terrorists in this case. The flipped viewpoint, one that most American's would have labeled as truly anti-American and traitorous, accuses the government's imperialist operations as the trigger for the fatal disaster.
“George Bush is way Worse than Bin Laden is
Know your enemy, know yourself
That's the politic
F.B.I., C.I.A., the real terrorists”
— dead prez, “Know Your Enemy”
A more known example for accusing Bush of the terror attack is Jadakiss' "Why?." In the song, he asks: "Why did Bush knock down the towers?" In an Interview, Jadakiss explained that the line is not an actual belief but a metaphor, blaming Bush's actions for the incident. Talib Kweli, a Muslim rapper born in Brooklyn, famous for his mindful lyrics, dropped an intelligent verse in the song "Around my way," highlighting the other side of the medal and simultaneously showcasing the possible shift of America's perception of African-Americans.
"The way we saluting flags, wrapping them around our heads
When n***** ain't become American till 9/11”
— Talib Kweli, “Around My Way”
This line describes, on the one hand, how the American's unconditional patriotism can be compared to the irrationality of Muslim extremists. On the other hand, he proclaims that black people finally became Americans due to the emergence of a new main enemy. Even though Hip-Hop culture already entered the mainstream in the early 2000s, these examples show the subculture's remaining unfiltered and authentic spirit.
A few years after the incident, the American media's focus on censorship slowly disappeared. Plenty of movies that hit the cinemas dealt with terrorism, showcasing the new reality of western society. Not only the MCU but also D.C. Comics put their take on the subject by creating arguably the most grown-up adaptation of superhero movies. Directed by Christopher Nolan, the Batman trilogy illustrated the severe existence of possible terrorism, making society live in constant awareness and fear of sudden attacks. The trilogy's second installment, "Batman: The Dark Night," introduced the audience to a Joker, embodied by the legendary Heath Ledger, who before has never been written as villainous irrational, and crazy. The movie sheds an ambivalent light on Batman's pursuit of counter-terrorist justice, delivering an impression of new-age warfare.
"Introduce a little anarchy. Upset the established order, and everything becomes chaos. I'm an agent of chaos...”
― The Joker - Heath Ledger
Besides pop-cultural movies and propaganda-suspicious movies like Clint Eastwood's "American Sniper" (2014) celebrated by conservatives for capturing "the true nature of the enemy," there are also more critical films highlighting the moral ambiguity of the war on terrorism. Over the years, the American society's support of the government's operations on the war on terrorism declined significantly compared to the times immediately after the declarations of the invasions in Afghanistan (2001) and Iraq (2003). The realist dramas of Kathryn Bigelow, in both "The Hurt Locker" (2008) and "Zero Dark Thirty" (2012), dealt with the subject of morality in modern warfare, delivering a discerning perspective on the subject.
The theme of terrorism and new-age war has not only been adopted by Hollywood but also by the gaming industry. Having a look at games like, for instance, "Counter-Strike," "Call of Duty," and "Medal of Honor," one can observe a contemporary image of war, showcasing the opposing parties of terrorists and special operators - sometimes without, sometimes with political intention. For instance, Al-Qaeda reworked the first-person shooter "Quest for Saddam" (2003) and launched "Quest for Bush" in 2006. The goal of the original game was to kill Iraqi soldiers and capture Saddam Hussein, whereas Al-Qaeda completely reversed the players' roles.
First-person shooters have achieved an irreplaceable spot in modern pop culture, being one of the best-selling genres in the video game industry. Traditionally, perceptions of war have been shaped by heroic and epic songs, stories, plays, and movies. Today, millions participate in increasingly realistic video games crafted with input from ex-military personnel who served on contemporary battlefields. Because of this lifelike illustration of war-like sceneries and brutality, critical voices assumed that playing video games led to violent behavior over the years. Even though this hypothesis has never been proven, gamers had to live with the "future-murderer" image for many years. However, it is indeed questionable how this modern illustration of combat affects our perception of war.
Looking at popular clothing styles today, one can identify military wear as a constant repeating theme in streetwear and fashion in general.
It gained more popularity thanks to influential personalities such as Kanye West, A$AP Rocky, Drake, and Virgil Abloh, and thanks to designers, such as Raf Simons, Helmut Lang, and others taking inspiration from the functionality of military garments and including it in their collections.
There is no better collection to illustrate this than the groundbreaking Raf Simons F/W 2001 “Riot! Riot! Riot!” collection, which featured extensively military garments, such as bombers, camouflage, and the use of military green for crewneck and other garments.
The show in itself is a perfect embodiment of the themes we analyzed at the start of this article, with the models walking around the runway with their faces covered. It was presented just a few months before 9/11, but it had already featured the themes of fear and instability that would have been omnipresent in the next couple of years.
At the same time, a resurgence in love for vintage put everyone on the look for vintage military garments, creating a frenzy that rediscovered the trends and fashion of the ‘60s and ‘70s, which we analyzed in Part 1 and 2 of our Subversion of War series.
The camouflage pattern's link to Hip-Hop culture, from the A$AP Mob, celebrating camouflage in the "Yamborghini High" music video, to Virgil and Drake stunting in Arc'teryx LEAF, is as present today as it has been in the past. However, what's hard to catch is the symbolism, a message, or a twist, conveying political- or cultural currents. As highlighted in the third part of our "Subversion of War" series, military clothing has already been a symbol of Hip-Hop culture in its emergence in the '70s. Between the '1980s and early '2000s, it manifested itself as a subcultural symbol in Hip-Hop due to the harsh circumstances in American ghettos.
By the time 9/11 occurred, the former subculture had finally and undoubtedly arrived in the mainstream, leading to a new perspective of the garments, formerly providing a real purpose. The remarkable standing of Hip-Hop in popular culture made camouflage a direct association and brought significant attention to previous undiscovered labels - such as "A Bathing Ape."
During the '2000s, Nigo's A Bathing Ape became Hip-Hop's most famous status symbol due to its exclusivity and partly its unmistakable "Cloud Camo," putting a playful twist on the militarian pattern. Seeing the likes of Pharrell Williams, Lil Wayne, and Kanye West promoting the Japanese streetwear label in the U.S., while it was still being distributed in Japan only, led to remarkable attention. In 2007, Soulja Boy's "Crank Dat" music video was released, featuring the rappers' own Bapestas along with the line, "I got me some Bathin' Ape." Ultimately, that was when BAPE became Hip-Hop style's flagship, initiating the age of hype. By picturing today's most influential artists in Hip-Hop, one will recognize the labels' constant appearance during their rise to success, even in the '2010s. A Bathing Ape can be held responsible for elevating the appeal of camouflage, cementing the pattern as a luxurious symbol of status in Hip-Hop, and paving the way for future prosperous adaptations as Kanye West's Yeezy line.
Furthermore, one could argue that the success of BAPE's playful approach to camouflage can be reflected within the Zeitgeist of post-9/11 America. At all events, it is more likely that A Bathing Ape's popularity is solely associated with its limited availability to the U.S., novel aesthetic, and famous fanbase. However, it could also stand in the context of America's slow recovery from the shock and the admission of a new reality. As one can observe in releases of cinematic projects, the theme of war, especially modern warfare and terrorism, returned in contemporary pop culture. Additionally, the video game industry produced an interactive, playful medium, often creating a glorious expectation of warfare as players didn't have to suffer real-life consequences.
The sincerity of war, so dreadful because of the grief and sorrow it causes, gets played down, obscuring the face of reality. However, a trivialized sort of experiencing these traumatic sceneries digitally may distract individuals by showcasing a manageable version of the harsh truth. Even though this assumption might be extremely far-fetched, BAPE's popularity of the playful “Cloud Camo” in the U.S. could be put in a context of a time impacted by the attempt to cope with a deeply manifested trauma.
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